Patricia A. O'Malley
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Established 1993

Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice


Defective Teaching Methods Produce American Political Ignorance
What’s wrong with our civics education and how to fix it.
January 11, 2018






 

Civics courses are supposed to teach how our government works in real life.  Americans' anger at government has been growing for 30 years.  We've seen griping, grumbling, ranting, and raving about government's size and its role in our lives. False information causes much of the noise. 

Civil, healthy debate is valuable, but it's impossible when the participants are uneducated. 

To mark its first anniversary in 2016, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate commissioned a national survey of Americans’ knowledge about the Senate.1

  • Only 46 percent know that each state has two U.S. senators
  • Only 16 percent could name both of their state’s senators
  • Only 36 percent know that the Senate confirms Supreme Court justices nominated by the president
  • But 85 percent agree that educating our youth about government leads to a better-functioning democracy.


All U.S. states require some level of civics instruction in elementary and high schools.  So, if they’re teaching it, then why aren’t we learning it? Most Americans are politically ignorant because those who control our schools want it that way.  They don’t want students to learn civics because it’s easier to control an ignorant populace.  A defective education produces defective citizens, leaving the one percent free to wield their power.

TEACHING IT WRONG
Our schools teach civics wrong.  No one ever learned anything from that bogus express-implied-reserved-delegated-concurrent-magic-super powers stuff.  Our schools do a great job of producing socially, politically, and economically ignorant citizens. 

All potential new U.S. citizens must pass a civics test administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.  Applicants are asked ten of 100 possible questions and must answer six questions correctly.  Ninety-seven percent of applicants pass the civics test.2 But a Xavier University survey found that only 35 percent of voting age Americans can pass that test.3 What does that tell us?

There has been some talk about requiring graduating high school seniors to pass that test. 

I don’t like that idea.  That test is not nearly hard enough.

TEACHING LIES
Some schools are teaching blatant lies.

A few years ago, I began seeing references online to the president’s duty as the “Chief legislator”, so I looked it up.  I got 3.2 million hits for various teacher resources and study guides, including some from otherwise reputable sources like Scholastic, SparkNotes, College Board, William and Mary University School of Law, California State University at Sacramento, and C-SPAN. 

The U.S. Constitution grants ALL legislative power to Congress.  The president is the chief executive.  Her/his job is to execute the laws passed by Congress.  The president is not any kind of legislator.  I dare you to tell Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan that Donald Trump is the Chief Legislator of the United States. 

I also Googled a claim that the federal bureaucracy is the “fourth branch of government”.  Right-wing organizations like Fox News, Reference.com, South Carolina Representative Mark Sanford, Investors.com, and FreedomWorks.org like that one.  They claim that the bureaucracy is completely uncontrolled, oppose any kind of regulations on business, and will do anything to prevent it.  Their lie is gradually infecting our schools. 

For the record, the bureaucracy is the meat and bones of the executive branch of government, which is led by the President of the United States.

Congress – as the legislative branch of government – created the bureaucracy to execute its laws.  The president leads the executive branch, and manages the bureaucracy.  Government agencies get their power from laws enacted by Congress.  Congress, through its committees, maintains strict control over all bureaucratic agencies.  Televised news reports in which Representatives and Senators interrogate high-ranking government agency employees about their work are just one example of Congress controlling the bureaucracy.

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, has declared that lobbying is a corrupt activity and should be banned.5 And then he brags about all of the lobbying that he does.  Lobbying is enshrined in the First Amendment.  "Giving buckets of money to legislators" is not lobbying.   Lobbying means trying to convince elected officials to support or oppose legislation and policies that you care about.  Everyone can do it.  And it doesn’t cost a dime.  Corporate lobbyists control the government because they’re the only ones doing the talking.6

And teachers perpetrate those outrageous lies.

One day, while in Washington, D.C., I heard a tourist in the Capitol Building ask a tour guide where the Constitution states that Jesus is the foundation of our government.  He was aghast when the guide said that Jesus is not mentioned even once in the Constitution.  A casual perusal of news articles and social media sites amply demonstrates Americans’ endless political ignorance. 

You won’t have to look far to find people who love to quote the constitution, but won’t read it, can’t solve minor bureaucratic difficulties, and don’t know that members of Congress can provide that service.

If teachers were teaching civics properly, Americans would know that:

  • someone criticizing your words is not violating your free speech rights
  • the president can not abolish the Second Amendment on a whim, and then come to your house and take your guns
  • the Constitution does not guarantee your right to violently overthrow the government, pursue your happiness, and go to court with a jury of your peers
  • the Constitution does not prohibit state secession and presidential executive orders
  • the Constitution does not require that capitalism and the gold standard ground our economy, public officials take their oaths of office on a Bible, and limit us to only two political parties
  • welfare and other public benefits programs are constitutional, and it doesn’t matter that they’re not specifically mentioned in the Constitution
  • illegal immigrants get ZERO welfare, food stamps, and other government aid
  • there is no such thing as “Congress and the Senate”
  • members of Congress do not get 33 weeks of paid vacation and have a “Cadillac benefits package”
  • the Constitution’s purpose is not to limit the federal government’s power
  • all spending bills do not have to originate in the House of Representatives
  • presidents do not spend tax dollars
  • homeless people can vote
  • the federal reserve system is government-owned and is frequently audited
  • income taxes are constitutional
  • the Constitution is not a list of laws
  • “right to work” laws will never protect your job.
  • a county clerk in Kentucky can’t deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples
  • a U.S. Senator born in Canada is eligible to be president of the United States
  • we can’t impeach a president just because we don’t like him
  • an impeached president isn’t fired immediately
  • there is a difference between a U.S. Senator and a state legislator
  • the president can’t just barge into Flint Michigan and hijack the leaded water investigation
  • the Constitution does not permit a national referendum on any subject, ever
  • there is no such thing as a “filibuster-proof majority”, and they are necessary
  • you can personally influence federal regulations.


In July 2016, Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland police union, asked Governor John Kasich to suspend Ohio’s open carry gun laws, in order to prevent gun violence at the Republican National Convention.7 Kasich replied that he had no such authority.  As a police officer, Loomis swore an oath to uphold the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions.  Does he not know that governors can’t suspend laws?  Or does he not care?  Either way, why not?

Hundreds of news reports across the country carried the story without Kasich’s explanation because the reporters and editors are just as ignorant as the rest of the public.  They are ignorant because they didn’t learn this stuff in school.  WHY NOT? 

After the mass school shooting at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, every news reporter in the country went nuts crowing about “Obama’s 23 executive orders on guns”.  President Obama never signed an executive order about guns, or on immigration for that matter.  Clearly, they have no clue what an executive order is, or how they work, or how to find the list of them online.  But that didn’t stop millions of other goofballs on websites and social media outlets from spreading the lies.  This media negligence is offensive, dangerous, and intolerable.  So stop tolerating it.

Even with the best intentions, teachers and administrators don’t know these things either because they endured the same defective civics education as the rest of us.  So they drag out the old express-implied-reserved-delegated-concurrent-magic-super powers junk because they don’t know what else to do.  They assign ridiculous tasks like poems, acrostics, and analogies to “demonstrate” government in action.  I know of a high school student whose assignment was to compare the United States government to the parts of a bicycle.  Like which government agencies are the seat, wheels, handlebars, paint, etc.  Who thinks up this stuff?

Teachers who don’t know their subject matter are irresponsible and lazy. 
I wish we could sue them for malpractice.

WHY IT MATTERS
American politics are in chaos because Americans don’t know how their government works.
People who know how government works know how to influence it. 
Political ignorance breeds political impotence.

Civic participation is one of the most important activities that adults can perform.  But Americans are utterly unqualified for it.  Successful democracy requires citizen participation every day, not just on Election Day. 

Participation requires an educated public.  

I discuss this topic a lot, with all sorts of people.  Most of them think that studying civics is far too lofty a pursuit for “regular people”, like nuclear physics, existentialism, or brain surgery.  That’s just not true.  Actually, I know of a prominent brain surgeon who has no idea how government works.  He ran for president.  And now he’s the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  He thinks he’s qualified because he used to live in a house.

All American adults need to know how government works.  Voter turnout keeps dropping because younger people think that voting doesn’t matter and that all politicians are alike.  I’ve known many politicians. 

Believe me, they are not all alike and voting does matter.

Many of those who screeeeech the loudest about cherishing the Constitution refuse to read it.  "We the people" can't begin to solve our problems until we understand the governing process.  And no, governing itself is not an evil activity.

When you know how government works, you will:

  • understand Congressional committees and the power that Congressional staffers hold
  • understand why bills live or die - and the evening news
  • know how to find and read the text of a bill online and to influence Congress
  • be able to solve your own bureaucratic glitches with government agencies
  • know how to obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act
  • evaluate your representatives' work so you’ll make good choices on Election Day
  • stop wasting your time “liking and sharing” petitions online.


When you know how your government works, you can learn who, when, where, why, and how to lobby. 

That’s right.  Lobby.  Then your life, and your children's lives, will improve.
America will work for you when you know how America works.

TEACHING IT RIGHT
Teaching civics is no more difficult than teaching any other subject, when the teachers are qualified and competent.

I’m not a traditional teacher, but I’ve been educating Americans of all ages about their government for 35 years.  The political ignorance still astonishes me.  Our schools have used the express-implied-reserved-delegated-concurrent-magic-super powers method for generations.  They’ve beaten the Federalist Papers to death.  And generations of Americans still don’t know how their own government works.  So why are we still doing that?  Americans will not know how their government works, why it works, how they can participate in it, and why they must participate, until we change our teaching method.

Albert Einstein said “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”8   Teachers must stop patronizing their students.  As a student, educator, and mother, it’s my experience that teachers routinely treat their students as though they’re about two years younger than their actual age. 
That’s why most kids hate school.

I implore school administrators to adopt the Marva Collins teaching method.9   Collins was a substitute teacher in the Chicago public school system.  In 1975, she opened her own school for poor black children who were deemed to be “unteachable”.  Thousands of her students became successful professionals.  She refused to infantilize her students.  She expected their best work and she got it.  Instead of creating sacred boundaries between subjects, she embraced the blending of science and math with spelling and geography.

This is the way human brains work.  So why aren’t we teaching the way we learn?  Children will live up – or down – to our expectations.

Civics education should run from kindergarten through high school.  Teachers can incorporate civics lessons into every course, so it won’t be necessary to carve out special class time for it until the middle school level.  They should use every opportunity to include the information into the regular class work. 

Integrating civics concepts with the standard curriculum will improve every course.  Instead of using lame, boring passages to teach reading to first and second-graders, give them interesting content geared to their grade level. 

For example, this paragraph is written at a second-grade reading level:
We live in the United States of America.  It has fifty states.  Our state is called (blank).  Our town is (blank).  We all follow the same rules, called laws.  When someone breaks an important law, they go to a court where a judge hears all sides of the story and decides what happens next.

Government terms and concepts can easily be incorporated into reading, spelling, writing, dictionary skills, research skills, history, map reading, and geography lessons.  It sure beats See Spot run and Mary has a dog.
(For comparison, this entire essay is written at a ninth-grade reading level.)

They can even include the concepts in math classes:

  • Each of our 50 states has two U.S. senators.  How many total senators are there?
  • Since 1789, the Constitution has been amended 27 times.  What is the average time between amendments?
  • Senators serve six-year terms.  Senator Smith has served 15 years.  How many terms is that?
  • Three-fourths of the state legislatures must agree to ratify a constitutional amendment.  How many states is that?
  • There are 100 senators and 435 House members in Congress.  Two-thirds of each chamber must vote to override a presidential veto of a bill.  How many votes are required in each chamber?
  • Only about four percent of bills introduced in Congress become laws.  If 3,486 bills are introduced in this session, about how many will become laws?


By the middle and high school levels, students will be prepared for a more rigorous civics course, which should include interesting and relevant research assignments, field trips to local government meetings, inviting representatives to meet with students in school, and analyzing news reports.

Older students should learn about:

  • their voting rights
  • lobbying
  • the Freedom of Information Act
  • how to file complaints with and about government agencies
  • their rights as citizens, consumers, and employees
  • the function of congressional committees
  • making comments at public government meetings, such as city councils and school boards
  • the government budget process
  • and more.


Schools should teach students what they need to know to be fully functional adults.

  • Help eligible students register to vote.
  • Give each student her/his own copy of the Constitution.
  • Make civics literacy a graduation requirement.


The civics education at my son’s school was no better than at mine.  When he was young, I was a Cub Scout leader.  For the citizenship badge, I led a brief civics lecture for the entire troop at a meeting which included their families.  Everyone learned something, including the parents.  It’s a shame that they hadn’t been exposed to it sooner.

I learned more about government from the news – when it was real news – and dinner table conversations at home than I ever did in school.  But many children don’t have that advantage.  Parents can’t teach what they don’t know.  So school districts should extend their civics education to the communities.  Conduct a public service marketing campaign to reach the adults.  Sponsor an evening or weekend lecture series and a meet-your-congressperson event, open to the public.  Encourage them to participate in school board meetings and school assemblies.

When I teach my noncredit civics course to older adults at the University of Pittsburgh, I see what all teachers see in that moment when they connect with their students.  I see their eyes light up and hear that “Ohhhhh!” when they finally understand things that they’ve been hearing about all their lives.  But our schools won’t give young students that pleasure.

HOW TO CREATE CHANGE
On October 15, 2011, millions of people in more than a thousand cities in dozens of countries on six continents marched in peaceful protest of global financial corruption and economic injustice. Think about that.  It’s never happened before.  Even the multiple social movements in the 1960s didn’t organize an event like that on a single day.  Woodstock in 1969 and Hands Across America in 1986 weren’t as big. 

The Occupy Movement demonstrated, and the Kennedy Institute survey proved, that Americans want to participate in their government.  They hunger for it.  But they don’t know how to do it because our schools won’t teach it.

Unqualified, incompetent, irresponsible, lazy, uneducated, and devious – each of those adjectives describes some American civics teachers.  Some teachers are all of those things. 

I suppose some civics teachers could teach the subject correctly.  But I haven’t met any of them yet.

We don’t let just anyone walk into a classroom and teach chemistry, physics, or calculus.  So why do we allow unqualified teachers to teach civics?  If they were qualified, they wouldn’t be spreading lies.  We must require teachers to know their subjects.

School board members generally think they’re supposed to produce drones to work for corporations.  We need the political will and the drive to force them to adopt these changes.  Turn them around.  Convince them that true education is their priority.  That’s lobbying. 

Recruit qualified volunteers to help develop the curricula.  Engage public libraries and community organizations to share their resources.  That’s community organizing.

ULTIMATELY
My husband and I raised our son on dinner table conversations.  We didn’t talk down to him.  We explained everything and answered all of his questions. 

We must stop accepting things we think we can’t change.  It’s time to change the things we can’t accept. 

We can’t afford political ignorance.  Knowledge is power. 

America struggles because too many Americans have abandoned their power.  Reclaim yours.


______________________________________________________________________

The original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights

are displayed in the National Archives in Washington DC.

A quote from Benjamin Franklin towers on the wall above them.
  "It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins."
Don't idolize ignorance.


RESOURCES
These are some of the resources available to help schools develop proper civics curricula:


SOURCES

  1. Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate:  2016 National Civics Survey Results
  2. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Naturalization Test
  3. Xavier University:  One in Three Americans Fail Immigrant Naturalization Civics Test
  4. Forbes.com:  Corruption, American Style
  5. The United States Constitution
  6. Community Matters:  Why We Need More Lobbyists
  7. CNN.com:  Cleveland Police Union asks for suspension of “open carry” in wake of Baton Rouge, ahead of RNC
  8. BrainyQuote.com:  Albert Einstein quote
  9. Biography.com:  Marva Collins


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